The Lost Weekends

How are enforced Saturdays off working out for young bankers?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

In October of last year, Goldman Sachs made a quiet but audacious decision. The youngest investment bankers in the firm, it announced to a stunned Wall Street, would be encouraged—even instructed—to take Saturdays off. From 9 p.m. on Friday until 9 a.m. on Sunday, all analysts and associates were required to be out of the office doing anything other than working, Goldman said. Junior bankers would be expected to check their BlackBerrys during the 36-hour period, but other than that it was a work blackout.

It didn’t take long for other firms to follow. Some six weeks after Goldman’s announcement, JPMorgan Chase said that it would have young bankers schedule one work-free “protected weekend” per month. Citigroup rolled out a similar policy in January, and Barclays introduced its own variation in February. Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, and Bank of America have also enacted similar rules.

Since the recession hit in 2008, banks have struggled to reclaim the sense of freewheeling glory that helped them recruit top talent from all disciplines into finance. Today’s elite graduates, as Kevin Roose documented extensively in Young Money, no longer look to Wall Street as the be-all, end-all of a gainful and challenging first career. Instead, many have turned to the allure of Silicon Valley—and who can blame them? The promise of the tech world, in a nutshell, is that working slightly better hours in jeans and a T-shirt, with snacks and a foosball table at the ready, will be more fun and every bit as lucrative as banking. Protected weekends were designed to help Wall Street lighten up a little bit, too.

Roughly six months down the line, protected-weekend policies are in full swing at many top-10 banks (affectionately called the “bulge bracket” by analysts), and many say the workplace culture is beginning to shift as a result. “It’s started to change the way that senior people in our group think about weekend work,” says one bulge-bracket investment-banking analyst who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity. “There’s less of a culture of ‘We have to work on weekends’ than there used to be, and I think that’s been very positive.”

Within the competitive world of banking, such a notion was practically unheard of. For years, elite college graduates had served their time in junior roles at top firms, slaving away at 100-hour workweeks and sacrificing friends, family, holidays, sanity, and certainly weekends in the mix. The hours upon hours spent chained to a desk were a badge of pride, something that—alongside a healthy end-of-year bonus—demonstrated true success in the business. Goldman’s decision meant that things had changed.

That sentiment has trickled down the ranks. “This policy gave junior bankers permission to tell themselves they don’t need to be in the office,” another analyst says. “This job attracts a lot of people who are highly anxious and highly motivated to perform well, and they might be the ones putting the most demands on themselves.”

David Wells, a spokesman for Goldman Sachs, says in an email that teams are managed closely to ensure that analysts get their protected time off. “Exceptions occur infrequently,” he writes. “The feedback we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive.”

But as with most things, the policies have come with imperfections and tradeoffs. Some analysts tell of having their scheduled protected weekends pushed off because of pressure to complete a big assignment. At JPMorgan, where the protected weekend runs from 6 p.m. on Friday until 9 a.m. on Monday, sources say they have occasionally had to pick up additional work to cover for a colleague. “Sometimes you do get screwed over,” a junior banker at the firm says. “It’s probably happened two or three times, where on a Thursday or a Friday my [boss] would call me and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to need some help on this project because another analyst has a protected weekend.’ ”

“Banks are service providers,” another analyst says, “and the expectation in our line of work is that when a request comes in from a client, we turn it around as fast as possible. A lot of other service providers don’t operate on that same principle.” Sometimes the formatting fixes in those 100-slide corporate-merger presentations just can’t wait until Sunday.

Perhaps a bigger problem with protected weekends is a suspicion among analysts that the time off is coming at a cost—in this case, their bonuses. “A huge perception among folks I’ve talked to is that the reason these policies are becoming more important is because the banks don’t pay the way they used to,” a source at Bank of America says.

Before the financial crisis, a top-tier bonus for a junior banker was expected to exceed that person’s salary and easily hit six figures. Now, as many banks have expanded their incoming analyst classes to help distribute workloads, rumor is that the highest bonuses for analysts will be closer to $70,000—even though bonuses on Wall Street increased an average of 15 percent last year. “If you ask any junior banker, they would rather get paid the way bankers used to be paid and work the way bankers used to work than have protected weekends,” the Bank of America source adds.

Bank of America did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Wells says that letting Goldman Sachs analysts take Saturdays off has had no impact on their salaries and bonuses, though the firm did grow its 2014 analyst class by 14 percent.

Even should the rumors prove unfounded, if the prevailing sentiment is true—that junior bankers want more money, not more time off—then Wall Street has it all wrong with protected weekends. Banks would be better off jacking pay up to pre-recession levels than trying to make hours more amenable. Then again, if money really is all that matters, finance might still be in a bad place to compete against the Facebooks, Googles, and startups of the day—especially when it seems as though every other week another young co-founder pockets a cool couple of millions for just a few months’ work.